Great Female Inventors
Patricia Bath

Eliza Lucas Pinckney

Patricia BathGrowing up in Harlem, New York was not easy when Patricia Bath was born on November 4, 1942 and she easily have stumbled on her path to her goals. In addition to the challenges growing up within a Black community at the time, their was a great deal of uncertainty in the air due to World War II. While one might expect little chance that a top flight scientist could emerge from this scenario, Patricia's parents instilled within her a feeling of opportunity and excitement for her future.Her father Rupert was well-educated served as
the first Black motorman for the New York City subway system, wrote a newspaper column, traveled abroad and served as a merchant seaman. Her mother Gladys, was the descendant of African slaves and Cherokee Native Americans and worked as a housewife and domestic, saving money for her children's education. Her mother instilled not only budgeting for the future but also taught her many things. Her mother encouraged her read and put an emphasis on learning, buying her a chemistry set and pointing her towards science. Her father, the traveler fascinated her with tales from around the world, peaking her curiosity beyond the bounds of her community. With the direction and encouragement offered by her parents, Patricia quickly proved worthy of their efforts.

Bath was enrolled in Charles Evans Hughes High School in New York where she served as the editor of the school's science paper. In 1959, she was among a few students from across the country for a summer program at Yeshiva University (New York City) sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Although she was only 16 years old, she was invited to study under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Bernard and Rabbi Moses D. Tendler in the field of cancer research. After developing a number of theories about cancer growth, at the end of the summer she offered a mathematical equation that could be used to predict the rate of the growth of a cancer. Dr. Bernard was so impressed with Patricia that at a conference in Washington, D.C., he incorporated parts of her research into a joint scientific paper that he presented. In light of the the publicity surrounding her work, she was presented with Mademoiselle magazines 1960 Merit Award. The award was presented annually to ten young women demonstrating the promise of great achievement. Patricia was able to graduate from high school in only 2 1/2 years of study and set out for college.

She mastered the writings of Milton, Virgil, Plutarch and John Locke, spoke French and learned to play the flute. She even tutored a few of the slave children on their property, hoping they would later teach other slave children and soon thereafter, her father was recalled to his post in Antigua (where he would eventually become the Governor). To the bewilderment of some, he left the plantation, the children and around 20 slaves in the hands of the 17 year old Eliza.

Bath attended Hunter College in New York and graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Arts degree and then enrolled at the Howard University Medical School in Washington, DC. At Howard she was exposed to Black professors and administrators and this had an enormous impact on her belief in Black leadership in society. She also gained from international exposure when she took art in a summer program in Yugoslavia sponsored by a government fellowship, focusing on pediatrics research. She graduated from Howard with honors in 1968.

In the fall of 1968, Patricia returned to New York and worked as an intern at Harlem Hospital. In 1969 she accepted a fellowship at Columbia University where she focused on ophthalmology. In working at both clinics she was able to recognize that Black patients at the Harlem clinic were twice as likely to suffer from blindness than patients at the Columbia clinic, most of whom were white. Further research, which she published in a report, showed that Blacks suffered from blindness as a result of glaucoma than the general population. She surmised that this was due to the fact that Blacks and other poor were not able to obtain ophthalmologic care in their communities. Bath concluded that this problem could be solved by the concept of Community Ophthalmology, which worked as an outreach program which sent volunteers out into the community to provide vision, cataracts and glaucoma screening. This led to treatment for elderly people and also helped to provide glasses for school children, helping to prevent future vision problems. At her urging, a number of the professors at Columbia came to the Harlem Hospital's Eye Clinic, and provided care and services pro bono.

Patricia BathIn 1970, Bath moved on to New York University where she became the first Black person to complete a residency in ophthalmology. In addition to her professional success, her personal life was on an upswing as well as she got married and soon thereafter gave birth to a daughter. More opportunities became available to her and in 1974, she accepted positions as an assistant professor of ophthalmology at UCLA and as an assistant professor of surgery at Charles R. Drew University. Believing that "eyesight is a basic right," Bath co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (AIPB) in 1976.

Bath had gained international respect for her efforts and traveled around the world bringing awareness to vision issues and offering advice and services to people she came into contact with. Eventually, she returned to UCLA and settled back into her research, focusing her attention on the disease of cataracts and its associated problems. Cataracts, characterized by a cloudiness occurring within the lens of the eye, causes blurred vision and sometimes blindness. Traditional treatments called for surgically removing the damaged lens (with a usual method employing a mechanical drill-like device to grind away the cataracts and was limited to use with secondary cataracts surgery). Bath devised safer, faster and more accurate approach to cataracts surgery.

Patricia BathIn 1981 she began work on her innovative invention which she called the "Laserphaco Probe." It utilized a laser and two tubes, one of which served for irrigation and the other for suctions (aspiration). The laser was used to make a small incision in the eye and the laser would quickly vaporize the cataracts. The two tubes would work to flush out the damaged lens with liquids which would then be sucked out gently. While the liquids were still flowing a new lens could be placed into the eye. While her device was a sound innovation, she had a hard time finding the proper lasers in the United States to work with it. After searching internationally, she found the right laser probe in Germany and successfully tested the device. Describing it as an "apparatus for abating and removing cataracts lenses," Bath received patents for the device in several countries and used the proceeds of the patents for the benefit of the AIPB.

Patricia Bath retired from UCLA in 1993 and continues to advocate vision care outreach and calls for attention to vision issues. Her remarkable achievements as a Black woman make her proud, but racial and gender-based obstacles do not consume her. "Yes, I'm interested in equal opportunities, but my battles are in science."


 

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